US court told of "sad" Iraq massacre, trial continues

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich (R) walks into court with his defense attorney Neal Puckette during opening statements in the Haditha murders trial at Camp Pendleton on 9 January 2012 in Oceanside, California. (Photo: AFP - Sandy Huffaker)

Published Wednesday, January 11, 2012

US marines could see only "silhouettes" as they entered a house where some of a total of 24 Iraqi civilians were massacred in a controversial 2005 shooting, a soldier said Tuesday.

Speaking at a court martial of squad leader Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, another intelligence officer described the "sad" scenes following the killings in the Iraqi town of Haditha.

Squad member Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum was in the thick of the house-to-house search for insurgents after an early morning bombing which killed one of their US colleagues on 19 November 2005.

On the second day of the month-long trial in California, the former Marine testified he heard between 5-15 rounds of semi-automatic weapon fire after the bombing, and was ordered by Wuterich to "treat the house as hostile."

Tatum said he felt he was not required to positively identify anyone in the house since it had been declared hostile, and could not confirm that the small arms fire came from the building.

Wuterich, Tatum and two other squad members entered the house. "As dark as it was, I didn't see much of anything, just targets – saw silhouettes, big, small, a man kneeling," Tatum testified.

He said he threw two grenades into the house in an operation called "double fragging" to "clear" the room. "Frag and clear. Two grenades, sometimes three, are sometimes appropriate," he said.

Visibility in the house was bad because there was so much dust in the air after the grenades were thrown, added the Fallujah combat veteran, granted immunity in 2008 when he was ordered to testify for US authorities.

In all, 19 people were killed in several houses along with five men who pulled up near the scene in a car, sparking one of the most controversial criminal cases involving US forces during the nearly nine-year-long Iraq war.

The victims included 10 women and children killed at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.

The other seven Marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings, fueling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.

Counter-intelligence officer Staff Sergeant Justin Laughner meanwhile said that after the bombing and killings he was "told to grab my gear and get an interpreter because there might be some wounded insurgents out there."

Laughner took his camera to photograph the bodies outside the car that drove up near the bombing scene and the bodies inside the houses swept by Wuterich's squad.

He said he looked for identity cards on the victims but did not believe any were insurgents. Instead, he found the bodies of elderly men and women, as well as younger women and children in bedrooms and other locations in the houses.

"I didn't want to stay in the bedroom any longer than I had to; I just thought it was all very sad. This is a sad event that happened with these people," Laughner testified.

Wuterich, 31, has pleaded not guilty to nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, along with charges of dereliction of duty and assault, for his role in the deaths of the Iraqis.

If convicted of all the offenses, he could be sentenced to more than 150 years in prison.

Wuterich remains on active duty at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, while awaiting resolution of his case.

Total Iraqi deaths during the US nine-year occupation vary with different studies ranging from at least 150,000 to over 600,000.

Accounts of US atrocities occasionally surfaced in the media, the most damning being the torture of detainees in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and the massacre in Fallujah in 2004.

US and NATO refused Iraqi insistence that its soldiers be subject to Iraqi laws, lending to training programs for Iraqi security forces being ended and US and NATO forces vacating the war-ravaged country.

Many US troops and private contractors accused of committing war crimes, such as Tatum, have thus gone unpunished as a consequence.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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